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A blue and black butterfly in flight
Photo by AARN GIRI on Unsplash

I heard Ray Ray before I met him. We were locked down for count when someone yelled, “I’m beatin’ yo ass as soon as the bars break, b—-! On my mama!” The threat was directed at some dude talking smack, selling wolf tickets to an event he really didn’t want to attend. So goes life in a maximum security prison.

Ray Ray had been down for a while. My 10 years paled in comparison to the amount of calendars he’d seen flip. I heard him mention he had been locked up since his teens. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out something bad had happened for him to be there in Green Bay Correctional Institution in Wisconsin. But in this environment you learn to not ask questions — out of respect. Everyone has a story to tell, but only when they are ready to tell it.

Our introduction came through a mutual friend during rec time. After that we sometimes greeted each other in passing. 

One day while walking my laps on the track, we had the opportunity to have a conversation. I was amazed by his story: He had evolved behind bars and turned away from what I considered life’s essentials, like money and sex. I was young then. Mainly, we talked about all the things we had very little control over: life outside the fence, prison food, our loved ones. 

Growing up in prison wasn’t easy for Ray Ray. He was raised by lifers sharing their philosophical views of how the planet rotates and where we belong on it. These conversations can contain pearls of wisdom, or they can hide a twisted plan to secure something from you. Games come in all shapes and sizes. Despite it all, Ray Ray maintained his composure through the years, wading through all the shit without letting it stick. Which is not to say that he wasn’t occasionally seized by his temper.

The same year we met, we were both transferred to Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution, a medium-security facility nestled in the Kettle Moraine State Forest. Outside of those razor wire fences was one of the most scenic views in all of Wisconsin. Wild turkeys and deer would pass by, sometimes stopping to look at us as though this were a backwards zoo.

Ray Ray was still in his quick-to-fight mode. I asked him why he didn’t overlook some of the little things. He said, “If you let ’em get away with that, it’s gonna be bigger next time, so might as well nip that shit in the bud now.” I couldn’t argue with that. 

Not long after, Ray Ray and I were housed in the same cottage, which is a type of residential-style housing unit at Kettle Moraine. When it was built, Kettle Moraine was a school for boys, and it still has a lot of outdoor space for recreation. One day, Ray Ray was going through his usual shadow-boxing routine on the patio at the back of the cottage. With one movement, he inadvertently hit a butterfly. He stopped and stood still for a while. I didn’t think anything of it when he picked the butterfly up, until I saw a tear fall from his eye — a no-no in the prison etiquette book. 

I said, “Yo, Ray Ray, what’s good?” 

“It’s all bad! I think I killed it.” 

The weight of his words didn’t resonate until later. Instead of looking at the animal as just a bug, he recognized that it was a living, breathing creation of God that ceased to exist because of his actions. I tried to comfort him by reminding him that it was an accident. That made it no better. It took time for him to grieve.

After that, Ray Ray started practicing Islam. He changed his diet, made his daily salah (prayers), and attended Taleem (religious education classes) and Jumu’ah (Friday prayers) weekly. I saw him making a conscious effort to grow closer to God. 

After he killed that creature, Ray Ray changed his entire way of life, and his choices had a ripple effect. Ray Ray woke up. He let go of his intimidating attitude — and that woke me up as well.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Lanard H. is a writer incarcerated in Wisconsin.